The Northern Illinois football team has built a Boise State-like run of success that includes six straight trips to the Mid-American Conference championship game, an Orange Bowl appearance in 2012 and a championship game loss that prevented another BCS appearance in 2013.
The Huskies have the most wins of any Group of Five team since 2010 (65, .783 percentage). The Broncos have the highest winning percentage in that time (63 wins, .808 percentage).
The programs will meet for the first time Dec. 23 in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
“I don’t think we get compared to Boise, which is a good thing,” Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said, “because no one can be Boise. ... They have really carried the banner for the Group of Five. When we can play that team, have an opportunity to compete with them and measure ourselves against them, I think that’s great.”
Here are 10 facts to know about the Huskies:
1. Four coaches, one motto: The Huskies are on their fourth head coach in the past nine seasons, but the motto hasn’t changed since the Joe Novak era (1996-2007): “The Hard Way.”
Novak endured a 23-game losing streak early in his tenure. He eventually produced a 10-win season in 2003 that included wins over ranked Maryland and Alabama teams.
Jerry Kill (23-16 in three seasons), Dave Doeren (23-4 in two seasons) and Carey (31-11 in three seasons) built a consistent winner upon Novak’s foundation.
“(The 2003 season) really showed people what this place can be,” Carey said. “... The Hard Way just means no short cuts. We’re going to take the long road and do it the right way. We’re very Midwestern, very blue-collar people.”
Said senior guard Aidan Conlon: “This is a program that was built on working hard and just being a tough-nosed kind of guy.”
Some coaches might have changed the motto just to put their stamp on the program. Novak, after all, left after a 2-10 season. But the Northern Illinois coaches have embraced it.
“You think about all the slogans that are out there right now — this is the best one in college football,” Carey said. “Coaches want to take it with them more than change it when they get here.”
2. The QB situation is improving: The Huskies (8-5) have lost four quarterbacks to injury this year, including starter Drew Hare. But redshirt freshman backup Ryan Graham, who came off the bench to lead the upset of then-undefeated Toledo and posted similar numbers to Hare, should return for the Poinsettia Bowl, Carey said.
Graham injured a leg in the regular-season finale. True freshman walk-on Tommy Fiedler started the MAC championship game, a 34-14 loss to Bowling Green.
“There’s a real good chance we get (Graham) back for this,” Carey said. “I wish the game was a week later because I think he’d be 100 percent. I think he’ll be real close to 100 percent as it is. ... We know he’s a good player. We didn’t think it was going to be his time yet, but it is.”
3. It’s the Nephew Bowl: Graham is the nephew of former NFL quarterback Kent Graham, who started 38 games from 1992-2002. Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien is the nephew of former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, who started 48 games from 1987-2001.
4. Take your pick: Sophomore cornerback Shawun Lurry was named an FWAA first-team All-American on Monday. He leads the nation with nine interceptions. But he isn’t the team’s best corner — that’s senior Paris Logan, whose presence led to Lurry’s interception opportunities.
5. The Iron Men: Conlon and center Andrew Ness are co-owners of the school record for career starts with 55. The Poinsettia will give them 56 — the max a college player can get without a game at Hawaii or a trip to the national championship game.
“I’m paying for it now,” Conlon said. “My body is getting old. It’s been a lot of fun. I can’t complain at all. I love this place and love the guys I’ve been around.”
6. Foot in the door: Senior linebacker Boomer Mays, the defensive MVP, arrived at Northern Illinois as a long snapper. “He just weaseled his way into linebacker drills,” Carey said. Mays is a three-year starter (and no, he’s not the long snapper).
7. Heisman connection: Boise State and Northern Illinois sent quarterbacks to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York in a four-year span. Jordan Lynch finished third for Northern Illinois in 2013. Kellen Moore was fourth for Boise State in 2010.
8. No pressure: Carey’s first game as head coach was the 2013 Orange Bowl, at the end of the 2012 season, against Florida State. The former offensive line coach and offensive coordinator replaced Doeren, who left for North Carolina State. The Huskies lost to the Seminoles 31-10.
9. Going south: The Huskies have 10 players from Florida on the roster — at wide receiver, defensive back or linebacker. “We have a lot of linemen from Wisconsin, Illinois — just corn-fed, big, strong guys,” Conlon said. “That’s what we recruit up front. And then speed and skill from the coasts. We have a lot of diverse backgrounds.”
10. Watch your fingers: DeKalb, Ill., is about an hour west of Chicago and home to about 45,000 residents. The university enrollment is 21,138.
DeKalb is known as the home of barbed wire. DeKalb High’s nickname: the Barbs. The student newspaper: The Barb Wire.
“We’re a big university in a small community,” Carey said. “Our community and this university are really bonded.”
▪ Who: Boise State (8-4, 5-3 Mountain West) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5, 6-2 Mid-American)
▪ When: 2:30 p.m., Dec. 23
▪ Where: Qualcomm Stadium (71,500, grass), San Diego
▪ TV: ESPN
▪ Series: First meeting
▪ Vegas line: Boise State by 7 1/2
▪ Tickets: $39, $61 or $78 at BroncoSports.com/bowlcentral. Tickets about $10 more through SanDiegoBowlGames.com.
Huskies at a glance
▪ Coach: Rod Carey (31-11, three years)
▪ Season recap: The Huskies lost by seven to Ohio State and three to Boston College during a 2-3 start but reeled off six straight wins and reached the MAC championship game.
▪ Offensive stats: 33.0 points per game (T-42nd in FBS), 426.6 yards per game (45th), 205.1 rushing yards per game (29th), 221.5 passing yards per game (65th).
▪ Offensive player to watch: RB Joel Bouagnon has rushed for 1,269 yards and 18 touchdowns but hasn’t been as effective since starting QB Drew Hare was injured. He has 51 carries for 164 yards (3.2 per carry) and one touchdown in the past three games — and will face a Boise State defense that is stout against non-option rushing attacks.
▪ Defensive stats: 25.5 points allowed per game (55th in FBS), 400.2 yards allowed per game (68th), 166.8 rushing yards allowed per game (66th), 233.4 passing yards allowed per game (77th).
▪ Defensive player to watch: CB Shawun Lurry leads FBS with nine INTs, including two against Ohio State, and ranks second with 23 passes defended.